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McLaren on top in 2nd practice

McLaren took first blood in the build-up to Sunday's Australian Grand Prix when test driver Pedro de la Rosa set the fastest time of the day as he topped Friday's second practice session at Albert Park.

De la Rosa, who finished second behind Red Bull driver Vitantonio Liuzzi in the first session, set a time of 1:25.376 to finish three tenths of a second ahead of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen.

McLaren have been tipped as favourites to take victory in Melbourne this weekend as world champions Ferrari struggle with their modified F2004M car before introducing their all-new model later in the year.

With Juan Pablo Montoya fifth fastest the Woking-based team look set to put in a strong challenge for victory but they will have to contend with a few regular rivals if Friday's running is a prediction of what is to come.

World champion Michael Schumacher looked down and out after opting to conserve his engine life failing to set a time in the opening session then struggling to perform in his opening laps in the afternoon run.

But he was soon back to his familiar form and finished fourth fastest and was 0.705 seconds off the pace although he was, for once, not the fastest German as compatriot Nick Heidfeld claimed third in the lead Williams.

Brazilian Felipe Massa finished sixth fastest for Sauber with Spain's Fernando Alonso seventh in the lead Renault after opting, like Schumacher, to conserve engine life and not set a time in the morning session.

Briton Jenson Button finished eighth in the lead BAR-Honda with Rubens Barrichello ninth in the second Ferrari and Italian Giancarlo Fisichella rounding out the top ten in the second Renault.

Teams limited their running in the first session to reduce engine wear for the weekend but they were not so cautious in the second and with 20 minutes gone all but the two Minardi cars had set a competitive lap time.

De la Rosa led the way again early on but the times were significantly slower than in the morning with temperatures rising to 22 degrees Celsius.

With 30 minutes gone Raikkonen was on top of the pile with a time of 1:26.311, around four tenths slower than Liuzzi's session-leading time of 1:25.967 from the morning running.

His new team-mate Montoya, who joined from Williams at the end of last year, soon offered a taste of things to come, however, when he pipped the Finn by just 0.084 seconds to take the top spot away just seconds later.

Fisichella sat in third spot for Renault with David Coulthard fourth for Red Bull while world champion Schumacher sat in a distant 18th spot after completing just six laps.

Robert Doornbos, the Dutch Jordan test driver, had an early spin and Liuzzi, who topped the morning session, also made a mistake and lost control at turn three but was able to recover.

Barrichello spun his Ferrari at turn nine and Fisichella lost control of his Renault at turn 10 while Christian Kilen, of Red Bull, and Jordan's Tiago Montiero both looked ragged as they dropped two wheels onto the grass. Toyota's Ralf Schumacher also spun, some 20 minutes before the session ended.

Once again Patrick Freisacher, of Austria, and Dutchman Christijan Albers were forced to wait for their debuts as Ferrari continued to block their Minardi team's request to run cars with aerodynamics that do not comply to 2005 rules.

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